Spiritual practices alongside story and ritual, are likewise accessible to the intergenerational congregation if we are willing to consider that these practices are more than just eloquent and complex verbal articulations. Young children are capable of learning to sit in silence, to pray with their imaginations, to express their hearts to God with their bodies, to offer their energy and artistry and to serve others with a depth and compassion that often is lacking in our society. Similarly other members of the body are capable of stretching themselves in their understanding of spiritual practice, even if it might at first be somewhat uncomfortable!
Most often in the congregations that I have been involved in, worship is primarily designed to engage adults and more specifically those with fairly developed cognitive and verbal abilities. There is often little room for those who cannot think abstractly, who have a smaller vocabulary, or even those who do not have English as their primary language. Our worship is very heady. The one exception is the children's sermon/story/time, which is often seen as the way in which we cherish our children and make sure that there is something to
- Children represent perhaps the hardest group to incorporate into the full span of worship, and the best way to consider a children's sermon is as a frank admission of our failure to create genuinely multigenerational worship. So yes, children's sermons are, for many congregations, a good idea, so long as they do not serve as a substitute for the continuing search for more embracing forms of worship. (The Witness of Preaching, 2005).
Again, as with ritual, the most important thing I believe we need to do when engaging in practices in our churches is to consider who is present and how we can engage in practices most inclusively. If we want to incorporate silence into our services, have we given children, youth, and adults the tools they need to engage in meaningful periods of silence? If we want to have longer periods of prayer, have we considered the possibility of incorporating imagination or movement into the pray so as to include those who cannot yet articulate all of their prayers verbally, as well as to stretch those of us who seem stuck in our heads, unable to engage in worship with our whole being?
I heard a sermon once where the pastor told the children's story as part of the sermon, and then had the children (and adults if they wished) draw pictures as he preached to represent the message. I have been in churches where sharing time included placing a step stool next to the microphone to make it clear that all people were welcome to share. I have been part of congregational prayers that included the pastor guiding us in imaginative prayer or including simple motions to represent the prayers of the people. I have been in services where the planners have taken care to include at least one song that they know the children know or can learn easily, songs that didn't require the ability to read. I have been in churches where the whole congregation, children and youth included, engaged in laying on of hands and offering prayers for someone who was sick. I have been in a service where our worship took the form of making sandwiches for various groups of people who did not have food. I have also been part of worship where the liturgy was written in simple language and I could clearly hear the voice of a young child, who had just learned to read, confessing her faith alongside her church family.
Children, youth, young adults, middle aged adults, the elderly all have the ability to be in communion with God. This does not mean that all will be equally engaged at all times, but that there are parts of the service which may engage all of us. Sometimes we will be engaged more directly, other times more rhythmically (Long, 2005) and still other times when we must consider that we are worshiping through someone else.
There are many people who remain doubtful that children can engage in practices of liturgy and prayer. I imagine these are individuals who have never had the opportunity to experience the genuine expressions of faith that emerge when children are given the space to commune with God. During one Sunday school class with 11 children aged 7 and 8, we prayed silently with our journals for 10 full minutes. There was not a sound in the room as the children poured our their hearts to God. Near the end of the ten minutes a child came over to me and asked if we couldn't have another prayer time to pray for her grandfather who was sick. So we did, and no one complained, in fact, there were more prayer requests! I have had the privilege to engage in practices such as Lectio Divina, contemplative gazing, praying in colour and labyrinth walking with children as young as five, and to engage in spiritual practices generally with children of all ages. I have been touched deeply by their openness to God and their genuine expressions of faith.
We have the gift of a treasure trove of ancient practices, a multitude of contemporary practices and only the limitations of our imaginations when it comes to the ways in which we worship as intergenerational bodies. May we be moved to pay attention to the needs and soul longings of all of God's people.